A Vonnegut Documentary Finally Nears Completion

Thanks to Kickstarter and 25 years of persistence on the part of filmmaker Bob Weide.
In 1982, 22-year-old Bob Weide completed a documentary about the Marx Brothers for HBO. Flushed with success, he wrote a letter to his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., offering to produce a documentary on him. The resulting discussions and filming sessions led to a friendship that lasted until Vonnegut’s death in April 2007 and at times conflicted with the project.

I first heard about the documentary in 2002, when I was desperately seeking a way to interview Vonnegut for Indianapolis Monthly in advance of his 80th birthday. While the Hoosier author proved difficult to contact, Weide wasn’t, and his intercession helped me land the interview.

Last week, I caught up with Weide, who finally seems ready to tick Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time off of his to-do list. My first big question: “Why on Earth has it taken you this long?”

His answer reflected his subject. “When Kurt used to talk about his writing, he said it was just a way to feed his family,” Weide said. “This project was not a money-making venture for me; it was a big expense. I had to do the other projects to make a living, so if being offered to write or direct something or to do a TV series was going to pay the bills, I could not afford to say no. Next thing you know, two and half decades have gone by!”

The Vonnegut film has taken a back burner to an impressive CV of distractions: creating Emmy Award–winning documentaries on W.C. Fields and Lenny Bruce, executive-producing Curb Your Enthusiasm, writing and producing a feature film on Vonnegut’s Mother Night, showing his Emmy-nominated documentary on Woody Allen at Cannes, and co-writing last year’s film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

In the years since Vonnegut’s death, Weide also speculated that a psychological component might figure in. Is there some part of me that needs to feel that I’m still working on my Vonnegut documentary rather than putting it behind me? he mused.

Throughout the filming in the late ’80s and ’90s, the relationship of filmmaker and subject changed as the two developed a close friendship. “At first, I assumed it would be a very conventional, PBS-style documentary about an author,” Weide said. “I didn’t have to contend with any concerns of objectivity other than the fact that I was a fan.”

That changed when Vonnegut invited Weide up to Sagaponack, Long Island for a week in the late ’90s. “At first, I thought it would be great to film him just puttering around his house and see him walking around the streets of Long Island in his summer home in his shorts and looking very comfortable,” Weide said. “And then I said, ‘Nah, I don’t want a camera crew to come and interrupt this.’ “I realized things had turned, and that the film was starting to impose on the friendship rather than the other way around.”

A 2013 meeting in Kiev with fellow documentary filmmaker Don Argott proved beneficial to handling this complexity. “Months later I saw his film [The Art of the Steal] on Netflix,” Weide recalled. “I called him the next day and asked, ‘Have you ever read any Vonnegut?’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s my favorite author.’”

So Weide brought Argott on board to help co-direct and handle that stylistic change in the film. They’ll work on some remaining interviews with John Irving, scholars, and possibly Vonnegut’s daughters. Weide also plans to visit Indy this summer to film the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and Pamela Bliss’s mural of the author on Mass Ave.

The other big icebreaker launches today as the two take to Kickstarter in an attempt to raise $250,000 to fund the remaining costs of editing a first cut of the film (bit.do/VonDoc). And is Weide confident that Kickstarter can, well, kick-start this project?

“People have been talking to me about Kickstarter for some time,” Weide said. “They had actually approached me, and I never believed it would be viable until now.” He thinks Vonnegut himself might have “gotten a kick” out of this grassroots creative financing. “He was really a man of the people who appreciated his readership and always seemed to be taken by surprise that people knew his books and read them.”

Weide has also been buoyed by similar projects, namely one by actor Griffin Dunne, who set a goal of $80,000 to raise money for a film about his aunt, Joan Didion. He raised more than $220,000 in November.

“And Vonnegut has to be at least two and a half times as popular as a wood-burning stove,” Weide quipped, pointing to a Kickstarter project that raised more than $90,000 for production of instructional DVDs.

It seems like a pretty good bet, considering the continued popularity of the Hoosier writer whose novels have never gone out of print.

“You don’t know someone’s a Vonnegut fan until it comes up in conversation,” Weide said. Even then, he’s still surprised. When he directed an episode of Parks and Recreation in 2012, he had no idea Amy Poehler was a fan until Vanity Fair interviewed her in December for its Proust Questionnaire. “Amy’s a funny person, so all of her answers were irreverent and not to be taken seriously until the end. They asked her about favorite writers, and without making a joke about it, she said Kurt Vonnegut,” Weide said. “I thought, well, hell, I can’t believe it never came up.”